Making Digital Sounds for Physical Objects

Last Thursday we hosted our last BAME (Bay Area Maker Educators) meet-up of 2017. Our theme for the night was Making Digital Sounds for Physical Objects and we explored the intersection of microcontrollers, software, and different types of interactive sound making materials. This event was timely for our team because we are currently exploring concepts and ideas around computational thinking and sound.

For the event, Sebastian and I set up workstations throughout the Learning Studio. Every station had a microcontroller (a MakeyMakey, Bare Conductive, or Playtronica board) along with physical objects. Aluminum foil collages, Lego motors and Lego technic pieces, markers, small plastic animals, and copper tape were some of the materials available for participants.

We were fortunate to have many returning BAMErs join us this evening. The evening felt like a small family reunion and folks settled right into a comfortable evening of tinkering.

Map of San Jose by Corinne Okada Takara

Artist Corinne Okada Takara came prepared to the event with a prototype to work on. Corinne was inspired by Sebastian’s record disk that she saw on Twitter. She adapted her design and added winding paths of copper tape tracing waterways of San Jose. A laser cut map was the base for her record so that students could have a deeper understanding of the city they live in. She also recorded sounds that corresponded with the waterways and landmarks of the map. She mounted her record on a toy helicopter launcher as a low cost alternative to a motor.



I really appreciated Corinne sharing her work with us and am interested to have participants bring what they are working on to future events. Another great attribute to her interactive map was the storytelling quality. Storytelling and STEM is an idea we revisit often and we are excited to see how students working with Corinne will use maps like this to tell a story about their hometown.

Paper, Tape, and Foil Collages

We created two stations that had aluminum and copper tape starting points. These tables were playful and allowed participants to contribute using paper cutting and crafting techniques. I designed oversized sensors from aluminum foil and a second emoji-inspired table. Each table was covered with butcher paper so that designs could be glued straight to the paper.


Dora Medrano, Jonathan Lai, and Dom Diglera from the Lawrence Hall of Science started the evening exploring the large table. They experienced trouble with the Bare Conductive board as they built different sensors, but restarting the board did the trick. Later, Leah Strichartz and Claire Comins designed at the smaller table. These set-ups provided an opportunity to collage and create artwork that linked to different sounds. For some, the sounds inspired the designs, while the object was inspirational to others.



Another interesting direction for projects involved motorized switches to trigger sounds using Scratch online platform and MakeyMakey controllers.

scales with scratch

A pair of BAMErs Walt Hays and Jenn Beach managed to program one of these rotating switches to play a full set of scales every 7 rotations. They tested and iterated on their Scratch code multiple times to achieve this goal.

Dora, Jonathan, and Saskia Leggett focused on personalizing the rotating switch by adding physical objects. They then matched the perfect sound to their contraption: a rotating switch stroking a fantastical animal.

These switch explorations caused attendants to grapple with the more nuanced aspects of programming, such as conditional loops and operators. We are looking forward to building on these ideas as we are working toward rich programming and computation qualities of tinkering activities. Overall, we were amazed by the variety of explorations, a quality that we strive for in tinkering activities. This BAME was an opportunity for us to share our new work as well as collaboratively develop it further.



It's always so fun to watch people play. Earlier this week I was watching kids build marble tracks on the floor and came up with an idea to build marble tracks off the wall with simple materials. Like I say in the video, the prototype I came up with is very delicate and I was easily frustrated by the smallest adjustment throwing off the whole alignment of the track. I do like how simple the materials are and that it packs up easily into a small box. There are some preparations and things to build for the elevation points and the track sections shown in the photos and video.
Prototyping and playing with this was important for me to get the idea out of my head and into my hands. Although it's not the most durable and I got frustrated by how delicate it is, making this lead to some other ideas for track-based marble runs.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Image and video hosting by TinyPic


Tinkering with Arduino: From Playing with Sensors to Making a Skiing Penguin

IMG_1892 2

In July, we hosted Sarah Costello from San Francisco Day School as a Teacher-in-Residence. For one week, Sarah worked with us on light play in the Tinkering Studio and preparing for the Infinite Versatility of Cardboard. She also brought Hummingbird Robotics for us to try. With a similar programming environment to Scratch, Hummingbird kits allow users to create and build robots from electronics components and craft materials. As a team, Sarah prompted us to create a robot petting zoo and we would construct interactive animals with built-in sensors, LEDs, and motors.





A few weeks later, Sebastian and I uncovered our partially built animal. I was particularly driven to make a finished animal, which is how the skiing penguin was born. But how did we get there?

Hummingbird Robotics Challenges

Uncertainty with Sensors We spent time troubleshooting the light levels of the light sensor and what was considered "dark" and "light." We found this process very finicky, and resorted to resetting the numerical threshold values of sensor multiple times. However, through the process of trial and error, our understanding of the sensor increased and we were able to have a dialogue about what values made sense, and how the values aligned with our vision for the project.

Motor Motion and Tethered Wires We incorporated movement into our skiing penguin, but found that there was not a lot of motion from the motor. Also, the wires of the electronics components made it difficult for our penguin to ski, and could make other moving petting zoo animals challenging.

Adding Value and Overall Satisfaction We both discovered that our tinkering styles are quite different and we mutually benefitted from the differences in our approaches. I found the process of building toward something - a skiing penguin - to be a motivating and fulfilling experience. I felt very satisfied when we had a working animal, and found a natural stopping point after we had a video of the penguin in motion. For Sebastian, the exploration wasn't very goal driven until the very end, when the skiing penguin idea emerged. The materials we used allowed to quickly change course as the functionality of the sensors and LEDs became more clear. He appreciated how the materials allowed for a process that was flexible enough to change ideas during the process, similar to Lego.

Final Reflections One of the project takeaways was to support broad exploration and avoid narrowing down the activity goal. In our case, we diverged from "feeding an animal" and instead created a moving toy. This process then sparked the idea of a new activity to make your own mechanical toy. While the tools in the hummingbird kit may or may not be the right fit for this, mechanical toys might be a rich area to explore.


The Art of Tinkering Workshop – September 2017

The Art of Tinkering
– A three day workshop about tinkering, making, thinking, and learning –
September 19-21, 2017 @ the Exploratorium

The Tinkering Studio team is excited to announce a hands-on tinkering workshop at the Exploratorium! The workshop is designed to investigate together how tinkering and making experiences support fundamental STEM thinking and learning, and is aimed at educators from all backgrounds, settings, and experience levels. During three days together we will explore tinkering and making activities that blend science and art explorations, exemplify best practices for critical thinking, and incorporate creative ways of becoming active participants in the process of tinkering and making.

The workshop is articulated around core tinkering activities designed to build upon each other over the course of three days. We will alternate between delving into making and tinkering with a learner’s mindset, and then carefully reflecting and deconstructing those experiences through an educational lens. At the end of our work together you will be equipped to formulate a practical action plan to take the logical next step to implement tinkering in your practice, whether you are just starting out, or are interested in expanding an existing plan. You will also meet other educators from all kinds of backgrounds interested in the same work, and will make lasting connections to support each other!

“How do I apply?”
Send a letter of interest to tinkering@exploratorium.edu! We ask that you commit to the full three days of the workshop, and we strongly encourage you to come with a colleague or thinking partner. There is a fee for this workshop, which will cover:

  • All supplies, tools, and consumables materials used during the workshop
  • Electronic activity guides and a copy of The Art of Tinkering book
  • Continental breakfast, snacks, and full lunch each day of the workshop

“Having an understanding and confidence to move back and forth between directing and allowing space is foundational to making tinkering really work for learning.” — workshop participant

The Art of Tinkering workshop will be led by Tinkering Studio educators who have worked with over 100,000 learners of all ages, in settings as diverse kindergarten classrooms, graduate school courses, community centers, public schools, Tibetan monasteries, science museums, and cultural festivals around the world.

The fine print: Workshop participation is limited, and applications will be processed on a first come, first serve basis. The workshop fee does not cover costs associated with travel, hotel, or meals and incidental personal expenses.


Benji’s War Reenactment

Light Play
Meet Benji. He's a 12 year old history buff, with a particular affection for wars. Mostly American Revolution, but also other stuff, Civil War and the like. He's been into it for a long time, in fact it turns out that Deanna was his counselor when he was six, and remembers him asking her for a face painting about the war of 1812.

Light Play
He brought his own ziploc back full of plastic soldiers from home with the intention of making a war reenactment movie on the stop-motion animation station. He has a YouTube channel devoted to his war stuff and wanted a neat addition to it, although he has made those kind of movies at home before.

Light Play
When he saw the Light Play setup, though, he decided to pivot his plan and make light and shadow versions of his war reenactments instead. He has also brought some Keva blocks that he used to set up a stage, and slowly started building a tableaux of characters.

Light Play
Light Play

His arrangements were very intentionals, here's a snippet of him talking about his creation:

Light Play
“What I am attempting to do here is to create a kind of cross zone between this light right here and then this light here with the climax in the middle.” I think it's clear that there is an aesthetic intentionality at play that serves to highlight the drama of the narrative being deployed. One of the possible directions we discussed about Light Play considered it being used for stage lighting, and I think this gets close to that kind of use.

Light Play
Later he created a completely different arrangement depicting another battle, this time adding motion with a rotating platform, and using the lights to create a clear separation between the blue side and the red side, signifying the two factions at war.